"What is Systemic Disruption?" A Q&A with Jeff Gorter
Author: Kyla Porter
November 15, 2022
R3 Continuum’s most recent webinar discussed systemic disruption with Jeff Gorter. Jeff is the Vice President of Crisis Response Clinical Services at R3 Continuum (R3c). When it comes to disruption, Jeff has truly seen and witnessed it all; with over 30 years of clinical experience, he is a leading expert in the field of disruption and critical incident response. In the webinar, we asked Jeff to share his insight on a new and concerning trend called “systemic disruption.” Below are some of the questions addressed in the webinar.
What is Systemic Disruption?
JG: Systemic disruption is disruption that has become so frequent and intense that it has a cumulative impact on our society and world. This is different than an acute disruption, or a singular disruptive event that will likely not happen again after it occurs. Instead of random acute disruptions, systemic disruption is a continuous occurrence of disruption that is affecting the whole of our society rather than just a part of it.
Why is it important to discuss Systemic Disruption?
JG: Over the past decade, there has been a trend in which disruptions are occurring with greater frequency and greater intensity. Disruptive events have also been more unique in nature: while they can certainly expect disruptions will happen, these are not the sort of standard crisis types one would expect. Historically, when I look back on our response history to disruption, there used to be a significant amount of time between events of this nature. For whatever reason now, we are in a place where systemic disruption has become our new normal.
What do you mean when you say, "Systemic Disruption is our new normal?"
JG: Over the past few years, I’ve done research into the cases that R3 Continuum has responded to. Below is a graph that highlights the number of shifts we have responded to between 2012 and 2017, specifically the number of times in which we deployed a trained behavioral health specialist to go onsite to a workplace to provide support following a disruption or crisis event.
Looking at this graph, we see a disturbing trend. As I was looking at this data and graph, it occurred to me that something had changed and was different in terms of what our typical year of response work looked like.
When I look back over the last ten years, I found what I thought was a striking pattern. From 2012 to about 2017, you’ll see that the number of events we responded to was fairly consistent.
It kind of operated in a relatively straight trend line. Of course, there were significant disruptive events that occurred during that period, which represent the spikes, but it remained fairly consistent.
Beginning in 2017, what I saw when looking back at our records is that it basically started when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and left so much devastation. Then on February 14, 2018, the Parkland shooting occurred. After that, during the following 20-months, there were 17 mass events that occurred, and by that, I mean there were multiple hurricanes, wildfires, and mass shootings. Wildfires are a disruption that have now become a consistent addition to summer months in the Western states. Suddenly, wildfires are breaking out all over and having significant damage. Then, once again mass shootings occurred. There were so many events that occurred during that period of time that it was almost one large-scale disruptive event per month.
As you’ll see in 2019, the trend line did not drop back down to previous levels. The United States experienced the El Paso shootings, wildfires that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, and many other large-scale events that gripped the nation’s attention.
Then it continued. In 2020, the first spike is no surprise. The data point just under 10,000 represents all the cases that R3c responded to following the outbreak of COVID-19, along with the impact that it had on not just the U.S. but on the globe. The trend line represents all the services we provided on behalf of health care organizations and so many other businesses in order for them to stay operational.
During that period of time, there was a very brief lull in disruption. Later in 2020, we saw the second spike. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there was a large spike in cases where R3c responded to many instances of civil unrest. These racial injustice protests did not just occur within the city limits of Minneapolis, protests occurred all across the U.S. Almost all towns throughout the nation experienced some level of civil unrest.
In addition to a global pandemic and nation-wide civil unrest, the 2020 election cycle became one of the most divisive races to date. The divisive political season culminated with the breaching of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and continued with the overturning of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court most recently. Together, all of these situations fed into a sense of heightened civil unrest and discontent in the country one way or another.
These lines continue to show that something has changed. When I looked at that period of time from 2012 to 2017, the first section that shows a normal flat line, R3c responded around 63,000 times on behalf of EAP Employee Assistance Programs and corporations directly.
We’re not even done with this year yet. R3c has responded over 115,000 times: more than double that of the previous period of time. You might say, well of course, with COVID that makes sense. Sure. But again, the trend predated COVID-19 and there was already an increase occurring in disruptions. If we look at those as significant events that required a tremendous outpouring of resources and deploying of our consultants to respond and cope with, these situations have certainly changed, and disruption has increased.
Disruption is no longer the occasional blip on an otherwise consistent trend. Disruption has become the new normal. It’s a systemic situation rather than the occasional, sporadic event. The intensity, frequency and uniqueness of these events is utterly different from my previous experience.
Can you explain what the concept of "gray rhinos and black swans" means when it comes to disruption?
JG: Yes. For many years in the crisis response industry, one of the guiding principles or paradigms, if you will, was called the black swan concept. By that, I mean that the vast majority of swans are white. When you see a swan, it’s almost always white. However, one out of a thousand is black.
From a crisis response perspective, this concept is the idea that we need to be prepared for that one occasional, out-of-the-blue, surprising disruption or “black swan event”. We recognize that most of the time, things will go along the way we expect them to, but occasionally we may have to contend with a black swan.
There has been a shift in the paradigm, in the perspective now. Instead of thinking about black swans, it’s what’s come to be called the “gray rhino” perspective, which is to say it doesn’t matter what color the rhino is. I can look for pink rhinos, I can look for blue rhinos. It doesn’t matter. The majority of rhinos are gray.
What is important to me is to find out how many rhinos are in my environment, and ask myself, have they become a stampede? What am I going to do if and when the rhino comes through? It’s a large shift in perspective looking at disruption, from thinking about the sporadic, occasional event, to “I need to be prepared for this. It’s no longer an occasional thing.”
This challenges the idea of what our “normal” looks like. I think that many of us, myself included, have said over these last three years, when is it going to get back to normal? This thing has to have run its course by now, right?
By normal, I mean the absence of challenge, the absence of crisis, the absence of disruption.
Well, normal is a is a comfortable delusion. It is a nice thing to think about. The fact is, the world has changed as it always has, as it always will. We have to be ready for that; the only constant in life is change.
I want to be clear in saying that I’m not in any way minimizing or trivializing the situations that people are going through. However, this is the term that is used in crisis response circles, that we are in a position where we need to “assume the boom.”
If we think like the black swan perspective, we need to assume that the boom will happen here and that it’s going to occur. That’s why this metaphor is helpful. When we assume the boom, if we take the standpoint that, “okay, something is going to happen, I don’t have to necessarily know what exactly it is, but I need to know that something significant will occur that changes things,” we are far more prepared for systemic disruption. Prior to this, before the “gray rhino” concept, leaders would spend all of their money, resources, and energy thinking about how do I prepare, how do I plan, how do I prevent this situation from occurring? When the boom happened, they really didn’t have a plan afterwards. They were just rolling the dice and banking on the fact that if they did enough preparedness measures, maybe it wouldn’t get to there.
When we take the “assume the boom” approach and are thinking about the concept of gray rhinos, we are now saying that there is inevitably going to be a stampede. So, we now focus our time, energy, and resources on addressing the question of “how do I mitigate the consequences?” How do I make the bad less bad, and how do I manage the after-effects of disruption with a plan?
What should leaders takeaway from learning about this trend of Systemic Disruption you are seeing?
JG: Leaders don’t want to be reactive. Instead, leaders need to start with a plan to face the imminent impact of systemic disruption. This plan should address significant questions, such as how do I manage my people? How do I handle my team and meet the behavioral and emotional needs of my employee group following this event?
The strength of a company is going to depend on its ability to take care of their people in order to help business return to productivity that much quicker.
Watch the rest of the conversation with Systemic Disruption expert Jeff Gorter: “Is Systemic Disruption Our New Workplace Normal?“